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Digital Subscriptions > Travel Africa > October-December 2018 (84) > AYE-AYE SPY

AYE-AYE SPY

Hidden away on the island of Madagascar, you’ll find a wacky wonderland of extraordinary biodiversity. We take a look at how the island’s ecosystem has evolved over time and reveal some of the truly bizarre and fascinating creatures you may discover here. Come and see for yourself! Words and photographs by Nick Garbutt
Finger-food: The aye-aye’s unique feeding technique, known as percussive foraging, has resulted in some extreme adaptations. The extra processing power required to coordinate this has resulted in an enlarged brain and cranial cavity, hence the aye-aye’s eyes being more widely spaced

Gerald Durrell, who tirelessly championed Madagascar’s wildlife, once described the island as “being shaped like a badly made omelette flying off the east coast of Africa, but containing — as a properly made omelette should — a wealth of good things inside it”. Yet stuffy a map and it would be all too easy to dismiss Madagascar as nothing more than an in significant chip off the old Africa block, and to suppose it contained little more than a watered-down selection of species from the mainland… Think again.

Madagascar flies in the face of intuition. It may be separated from Africa by a ‘mere’ 400km of sea, but its wildlife and evolutionary history are light years distant. Madagascar isn’t just different— it’s very, very different: The vast majority of species, whether plants or animals, are found nowhere else. In groups like mammals (excluding bats), amphibians and reptiles the levels of endemism exceed 90 percent.

Arguably, one animal exemplifies this more than any other. The aye-aye. When discovered in 1788, it was thought to be a squirrel-like rodent and it was not until around 100 years later that it was finally accepted as a primate. The epitome of anatomical deviance, the aye-aye combines a peculiar suite of features that set it apart: as with rodents, its front teeth (incisors) grow continuously; its ears are massive, mobile and leathery, resembling those of a large bat; and its extraordinary gnarled tarantula-like hands have clawed finger and a skeletal middle finger. Add to these, widely spaced, piercing orange eyes and a coarse, shaggy black coat with long, bushy tail, and the overall impression is something resembling an electrocuted witch’s cat with gremlin features.

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